Cassie Hart is joining us today to talk about her novel, Butcherbird. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Something is drawing Jena Benedict’s family to darkness. Her mother, father, brother and baby sister are killed in a barn fire, and Grandmother Rose banishes Jena from the farm. Now, twenty years on, Rose is dying, and Jena returns home wanting answers about what really happened on the night of the fire and why she was sent away. Will, Rose’s live-in caregiver, has similar questions. He hunts for the supernatural, and he knows something sinister lurks in the Benedict homestead. Together, Jena and Will unearth the mysteries around a skull, a pocket-watch, a tale of the Dark Man and a tiding of magpies. And in doing so, they set loose an evil entity determined to destroy Rose and her whole clan. Full of tension and psychological thrills, Butcherbird is a novel about uncovering truths and unshackling guilt.
What’s Cassie’s favorite bit?
Butcherbird is the book of my heart, so it contains many things that I love. In attempting to choose just one to share with you, it has to be the setting.
The book takes place almost entirely on a fictional version of Paringa, my grandparents farm. A farm that had been in my family for over a hundred year. As a child I spent a lot of time there; my aunt and uncle and cousins were just down the road from the farm, and we were further down. Paringa was our second home. We would sleep over on the regular, spend hours and hours traipsing over the paddocks, picking blackberries, playing in the swamps and reeds.
This is where I first started creating stories, worlds beyond our own. My cousins and I would gather, sitting in a circle as I assigned characters and ages and spun up the setting and premise of our play. Sometimes it was just those of us who lived on the road, but in the school holidays others would join us to flesh out the numbers.
Paringa provided the backdrop for every story I could imagine, from any genre that interested me, and I will be forever grateful for that space.
Butcherbird is, at its core, a love letter to that farm. A love letter in the form of a spooky, supernatural suspense. I loved writing an alternate version of Paringa, one that retains the truth of the land, and I loved seeding in real things with my imaginings.
Set at the foot of Taranaki Maunga (Mount Taranaki), this fictional farm embodies all of the isolation of living in rural areas of New Zealand, from the neighbors too far away to hear you scream, to the territorial magpies prone to attacking if you got too close, from the chilly water coming straight off the mountain, to the swamps that threaten to hold you tight.
The first sign that they had hit the swamp was the gentle sucking of mud against her shoes, and then the grass gave way to the reeds, thick and dark. They pointed into the air, their sharp tips looking like tiny knives raised to the sun, the slant of the light making them almost the colour of blood. Jena wished she’d brought a jacket with her; the shorter ones spiked against her arms, and barbs from the longer ones pulled at her hair.
I first got the idea for this book while playing Minecraft with my kids. We’d found this really cool village kind of hanging off a cliff, and I was harvesting wheat from the garden when I looked up. There was something about the position of the sun and clouds, the way the wheat seemed to loom above me, that threw me right back to my childhood. On the farm, we used to play in the reeds a lot, hide and seek among other things. A chill ran down my spine as I remembered how isolated you could feel out there, even when you knew there were others nearby. Sometimes, you could look up and just feel like the rest of the world had disappeared.
That sense of isolation is one of the things I love about the farm. It’s both a blessing and a curse, and leaves plenty of room for fear to wriggle into your brain, for what if questions to bubble, for the imagination to blossom. Those were the gifts the farm gave to me, along with so many more. I miss it.
Mostly this book is about Jena, whose family died in a mysterious barn fire when she was ten.
It’s about family and secrets, about trauma and healing, it’s about how the past – the actions of our ancestors – can echo down the line and impact on current generations. It’s about ghosts and birds and life in the country. The way that life and death so often go hand in hand, and the setting is so essential to these themes.
Cassie Hart (aka J.C. Hart and Nova Blake) is an award winning Māori (Kāi Tahu, Makaawhio) speculative fiction writer who enjoys delving into human nature in all its beauty and disarray. Butcherbird is her traditional debut from HUIA (https://huia.co.nz/).